The Meaning of School

At what point or time would we ever come to reflect on the true meaning of a word (and, really, a world) we have understood so clearly since age four or five?

School is the place we went every day between ages five and eighteen to sit in classrooms with rows of desks, to listen to teachers, to read books, and to work hard. It is a place, it is an environment, it is an idea, and yet even being all those things, we have no reason to question it. School is, in many ways, our childhood and our adolescence.

But in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes nonchalantly of how skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meant leisure. It is from here that we derive the English school, meaning, to most of us, leisure’s opposite.

The etymology struck me as only the most obvious ideas, too long hidden, seem to do. Of course school, a place of learning, should be derived from the idea of leisure. Studies have shown that students accelerate most in their learning over summer holidays (which explains a large part of the effect of socioeconomic status on learning outcomes, as students of wealthier families will have more books and other resources at home). Most students themselves will know they learn a great deal when reading for pleasure. Some of the most productive learning time may be spent relaxing on a couch, staring at a laptop screen while stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Waking up on a Sunday morning in summer with nothing to do all day but read a book has been the most meaningful time I’ve spent learning.

And yet school is a place of hard work. It is hectic, rushing between classes, there is homework each day, there are exams to cram for, too many books to read. From the Greek word for leisure we now derive an institution of busyness and hard work, which the original etymology shows us is precisely the opposite to how learning was thought to take place. Whence and why the shift?

I suppose Ken Robinson’s answer in his famous TED talk may come closest, the idea being that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education that brought it to replicate a production line. But regardless of the cause, school today probably does other things aside from the ideal leisure=learning that are worth maintaining.

The trick, I think, is in our own lives in education, and perhaps our childrens’, to not lose sight of the original ideal of how learning takes place; to carve out time for leisure, and to avoid the trap of leisure guilt. It is to know what learning means to us, and find time for that at all costs, regardless of the time we spend in the school=busyness world.

The Readymade Fallacy

Often when we are impressed by someone’s work we tell ourselves stories to explain their success. They had an education I didn’t have, so they were perfectly suited to do that; they were just naturally good at it; they had momentum behind them; they had money behind them; they knew the right people; they look better than I do, so people naturally like them; they’re extroverted, so they can express themselves that way on TV; they’re introverted, so they can hole up for months on end to write that book…

Many of these explanations commit the Readymade Fallacy. We see only the end product of success, and never the process and hard slog that went into it. Behind almost all success stories is hard work, day after day, refusing to make excuses for oneself, refusing to be distracted. Very often the starting point from which someone went on to become a success was from a more difficult place than we are presently in. But in our blindness to the hard work that went into something successful, we fall back on narratives to explain why they could do something that I couldn’t.

Narratives that put success down to something intrinsic in that person give us a way out of what is in reality just the necessity of hard work. If it was down to their education, or their good looks, or their being introverted, then there’s no point me starting a similar project, since I’m not cut out for it in the way they are. We need not begin that project we had planned, since we won’t succeed like they did because of their (insert any trait here).

Don’t mistake hard work for innate traits. In doing so, we merely give ourselves excuses for not doing what we really should do. What we actually need to do is to write, dance, sing, record, train, practice, study, work… hour after hour, day after day. There’s no innate character trait for that, since persistence is a learned mindset.